The Crowbar, Tea Rooms, Hemingway, and Truth
Hatchlings played a seven-song set at the Crowbar in Temple Bar, late July. The crowd, a mix of fans, friends, and musicians, watched on as the band opened with ’26’ – a bass-driven, joyfully loose song full of subtle licks and turnarounds.
Mid-way in, a string breaks on Jamie Bishop’s guitar, producing a few wry smiles from his bandmates. They keep playing and singing intricate harmonies – highlighting the many influences in their music, from jazz to R’n’B to classical music. The song finishes to encouraging applause and a new pack of strings is produced. The band laugh it off; the new string is tuned, and they go into their next song.
I met them earlier that evening in a tea room on Lower Stephen Street, close to the venue for their gig that evening. The location was their suggestion after I naively proposed a pub that was jam-packed with office workers. The downstairs seating area had an old-fashioned feel with floral wallpaper and leather armchairs. I rooted through my bag and tried to organise myself while the band, represented by Conor Cunningham (vocals, guitar, bass), Eamon Travers (keyboard), and Peter Kelly (vocals, guitar, bass), talked freely amongst themselves.
‘What did you go for?’ Cunningham asks me as I sit down.
‘Silk something,’ I say. ‘I asked him to recommend one for me.’
‘Ah, that’s a nice one,’ the band confirm.
You get preconceptions of a band who have a knowledge of tea outside of Lyons and Barry’s. The word ‘pretentious’ does come to mind; a view that wasn’t helped by a man sat beside us who seemed to blend into the fusty wallpaper behind him while he sipped on tea and read a hefty book.
Yet, a few minutes in Hatchlings’ company and you soon realise they have few notions of their importance. Rather, they are an honest band who produce honest music.
The gig was dedicated to drummer Darragh Brannigan — notable by his absence. The remaining members were in fine form nevertheless, at ease on the stage and excited about the upcoming release of their first EP, Montessori, which was mixed by Yanko Genov and Cian Hamilton. Gerry McDonnell of The Frames also had a hand in the production. The album is due to come out before they play Electric Picnic in September. It will include established songs such as ‘Sexy B’ and ‘Working’, the couple that closed their set in Dublin.
‘That was kind of the song that brought us together,’ Cunningham says of ‘Sexy B’. ‘The three lads (Eamon, Peter and Jamie) were playing for a while – two or three weeks. And one day they were jamming to it around the kitchen table and I come in and was like, “Oh, I like that song,” and started singing a harmony on top of it and Jamie was like, “Hey, do you want to be in the band?”
The song in question is beautifully arranged – a light and delicately unassertive opening of keys and acoustic guitar awoken by a sliding riff that sets the mood for the powerful vocals of Bishop crying, ‘I’ll drag you out, I’ll drag you in. I feel the light on a side I used to hide.’ It has an anxious mood that reminds me of Nirvana – songs that feel like they could have only been written in the disquiet of the night.
On the creation of such songs, Kelly says, ‘A lot of our songs aren’t directly born out of jamming but we do so much jamming, or did so in the early phases, that our styles of music ended up mixing together. It’s very much not thinking too much about it and playing and eventually an idea will come out of it.
‘I like to think of being free and going back to [a] child-like way of thinking, rather than being over-serious,’ he adds, reminding me of Samuel Beckett and his apparent eagerness to unlearn what he thought he knew to see the world afresh again.
‘I’d swear by writing early in the morning when you just get up,’ Travers says, referencing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist who pioneered the idea of ‘flow’ – a state of complete absorption in the activity at hand and the situation. ‘There’s no part of your brain censoring things then so you get more fully formed ideas.’
It doesn’t surprise me that the band are literary fans. They begin to talk about Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, and Terry Pratchett, when a song on the radio catches Cunningham’s attention.
‘I’m a huge pop fan,’ he admits. ‘I love cheesy pop songs as much as I love other music.’
Travers, continuing the literary thread, alludes to Hemingway’s concise style of writing versus the elaborate florid language often associated with alternative pop, saying, ‘You don’t want to be so confusing that people are going to get frustrated and not listen to your music. It should never be a hardship.’
It didn’t seem a hardship to the audience, some of whom mixed listening to the music with conversation while the city moved to its own beat outside the large window behind the band. I say this because their music is unassuming in ways; there is no indulgent solos or booming chords. You might call them a coffee shop or a tea room’s dream – a mellifluous foundation on which to build ambience. They don’t plead for your attention or try to overpower the room.
‘It’s not us,’ Cunningham says simply when asked if they are ever tempted to dress outrageously, behave impetuously, or act to a part to garner attention. But to believe that this down-to-earth mindset and unassuming nature would limit them to the role of lounge band would be terribly wrong as, given some study, their music is endearing and arresting.
A standout is ‘Divinity’, a meandering walk through a dream sequence that never rushes or fully explains itself, always leaving spaces for the listener musically and lyrically. It begins:
I saw your girlfriend, she was stretched out, she took my only seat. The ice melts, she emerges from the reverent — barefoot, free and tight. She rolls a dice across my finger and I screamed ‘It was a nice dream’ — a nice little sentiment, but it’s hard to equate with any scene in my life.
A hallmark again is the gorgeous keys that lead us in and take us out of the reverie with the admission, ‘It’s hard work holding up a fantasy when every other Wednesday she’ll appear upon the scene’; a delicately rendered line that seems to encapsulate our ability to live in the real and surreal all at once while playfully ridiculing our penchant for the fantastical, albeit justifying its necessity.
The band’s origins are in NUI Maynooth, where their regular jamming sessions led to collaborative songwriting and later gigs.
‘There’s an open mic in Maynooth that pretty much every musician tends to gravitate towards,’ explains Travers, who was studying Maths and Music Technology. ‘You meet everyone there.’
It becomes apparent from watching the band live that they have put in the practice hours. Instruments and vocal duties are shared on a regular basis. Between songs, Cunningham, Kelly and Bishop switch bass, electric, and acoustic guitars.
‘Whoever wrote the song usually gets the acoustic most of the time,’ explains Kelly, although you get the impression that this changes nightly.
They are excited about a series of upcoming gigs that will see them play, amongst others, Electric Picnic, Canalaphonic, Arcadian Fields, and Battle for the Lake, a music festival-cum-watersports bonanza that they are particularly relishing. Although the band don’t think they have a specific audience type, Cunningham says, ‘Old men tend to like us’ and ‘priests too.’
Once they finish their set at the Crowbar, they chat freely with the audience and other bands before making a direct line for the smoking area, still clearly adrenalized.
‘For me, playing live is the best feeling in the world,’ Cunningham says, whose enthusiasm is unbidden. ‘I feel comfortable when I’m behind an instrument. I’m more of myself.’
I pose the idea to them that often musicians create alter egos, or have a stage or musical self that they can satisfy as being distinct from the own selves – allowing for creative freedom. I cite Father John Misty or Joshua Tillman, who seems to use a manufactured identity to poke fun at and satirise the notions of pop songs and mindless entertainment.
‘Would it [alter-egos] be something you’d consider?’ I ask.
‘I don’t think any of us have touched on that,’ Cunningham responds, probably amused by the idea of going by a stage name in his native Donegal.
‘I think we are presenting who we are on stage and in our songs,’ says Kelly. ‘But in a way, that feels more truthful than what we can do in everyday language.’
Hatchlings on stage at Body&Soul
Kelly, who sat on a stool at the front of the stage – the closest member to the audience – is at ease playing the guitar and bass, while singing lead and harmonies. He engaged with the audience a few times – telling of the origins of ‘Sin É’, a song about Sinéad O’Connor being barred from the Temple Bar Barbers – but all was done in an unassuming way before he retired to the music.
Travers, whose tight keyboard playing complements the band so well, says they are conscious of taking themselves too seriously in songwriting. ‘You try not to criticize and analyse everything you are doing because you’ll end up shooting everything down straight away,’ he explains.
Kelly says a pressure to be ‘original’ can stifle creativity: ‘Music can be so ultra-serious sometimes that it is ridiculous. The 70s was ultra-emotional; 80s — super glamorous; 90s — ultra angst. It’s only natural that people like Father John Misty look back and make fun of what was there and is here now.’
Cunningham continues, ‘It’ll pass in another ten years. It’ll be somebody different. I don’t know what comes after being ironic though. It’s hard to move past.’
‘Brute honesty?’ Travers suggests.
They all nod in agreement.
It is quite difficult to decipher where Hatchlings fit into the spectrum of artistic responses or if they care to categorise themselves.
Indeed, they laugh when I ask the dreaded the question of how they perceive their own sound. ‘It’s a question we get asked a lot and we’ve become comfortable with it,’ says Cunningham. ‘Jamie calls it “hard pop”; I kind of like to think of it as soul.’
Kelly continues, ‘The way audiences are going now – most people are listening to a lot of different genres, so they don’t really have one genre they are aligned with and that’s the way our tastes are as well.’
Their set ended with ‘Workin’, a song they had the pleasure of playing in Paris at Shakespeare & Company last year, accompanied by Laura Quirke of LemonCello. The verses are almost lullaby-esque, with a folky feel that mixes with bluesy guitar, until a delightful refrain that builds up into primal cries… then stillness.
‘The song is a mood a lot of the time,’ Cunningham says of their growing catalogue. This is evident in ‘Workin’ but there is no single mood. There seems to be contentment, anguish, and many of the vagaries of the everyday. The mood changes in their songs, like our own moods change, often without explanation or reason. Admirably, Hatchlings want to talk about real life and they do it very well.
As mentioned, Hatchlings have a series of upcoming gigs to complement the pending release of their EP. I was keen to know what success was for the band or if it is something they even dwell on.
They looked at each other and considered. ‘I suppose success for us is probably doing what we are doing for the rest of our lives,’ Kelly said. ‘Just to keep the band going. That would be good.’
1 September 2017: Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Co.Laois
23-24 September 2017: Canalaphonic, Rathmines, Dublin
29 September 2017: Battle for the Lake, Achill Island
Eamon Doggett is a writer from Bettystown, Co. Meath and recent graduate of the MA in Writing programme at NUI Galway. He has had short stories published in Prick of the Spindle and the ROPES anthology, and was recently shortlisted for the Irish Times’ Hennessy New Irish Writing monthly award.